Brain Science – Episode #19

Step away to get unstuck

exploring the science behind adaptive problem solving

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In this episode, Mireille and Adam talk through the challenge of problem solving. It’s all to common to utilize the “try harder” approach when things aren’t working out the way you’d like. While that kind of effort is valuable, this approach is often wrought with further frustration, wasted time and less than desirable results. This episode offers you an alternative perspective and ways that you can practice getting unstuck and utilize more of the resources of your unconscious mind.


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Today I wanna examine and potentially debug this “Try harder” method of solving problems. From my experience, staying in the moment doesn’t always lead to solving the problem; by getting away, taking a shower, maybe a walk, playing with the kids, going for a bike ride - they enable my mind to wander, make connections, and potentially influence these A-ha moments; that’s how I solve my problems, by getting away, unplugging.

Yeah, I think most (if not all) of us can relate to that when we encounter a problem of sorts, especially cognitive tasks or trying to figure out a way to make things fit, and yet nothing works… So we’re like “Well, if I just grit my teeth and push harder, try harder, I’ll get there.” And it just doesn’t ever really seem to pan out that way.

It seems like if I get away from the desk, if I get away from specific – I don’t knonw how to describe it besides like “in the mix”. If I get out of the mix and I go and do something that’s completely different, for some reason that’s when things begin to connect. I’m thinking of like maybe a fun idea that we’re doing with a partner, or a sponsor, or a new show topic, or things like that… Having time to disconnect from (I would just call it) the crazy is to schedule the things we have to do; unplugging is almost like going to play. If you let your mind play a little bit, for some reason, that seems to work for me - to unplug and problem-solve.

I think I’m most familiar with this, and I just learned this when I was in graduate school… Because there were a few late nights and early mornings in that experience…

Of course, yes.

There were deadlines, so I was always pushing to get things done, and school wasn’t just my only thing I was doing… So to practice figuring out what things would work - and I’m pretty sure it was early on that I was like “Oh, screw it!” I just ended up walking away, and sometimes that would be - if it were late at night, I’d just wake up early and try to get whatever it is done. And I’ve always then gone “That’s my go-to move: walk away, go to bed, and revisit it in the morning”, because it would take me a third of the time to figure something out or get where I wanted to be in the morning, than it would if I tried to push harder, or tried harder.

[00:04:26.09] Well, think about what you’re expressing there - you were stressed.

But you were stressed to such a point that you had to walk away.

And what happens under stress? We both know what happens - all these bad things.

[laughs] This is why I’m so fascinated with the brain and what it does, because it’s not just one system or one thing; it’s this sort of cacophony of different intersecting variables. When we get stressed, I think the thing that stands out the most is how we literally get tunnel vision, because that’s super-adaptive, right?

Yeah, exactly, it’s adaptive. It has a purpose, it does work in certain scenarios, so when we’re in stress modes, it would make sense for us to laser-focus on specifics, versus all the wide details. It’s not important.

Right. I think of like ratcheting down and buckling down, and “Arrgh! I’m just gonna grit my teeth and get grittier.” So I’m really reinforcing that honing of the land. Ironically, I’m imposing more pressure, more constraints by trying to try harder.

Yeah. This try harder aspect is tough, because you almost – there’s contradiction, to some degree. I don’t always tell my kids to try harder, but to some degree you want them to try again. So you almost sort of perpetuate that in different scenarios. In some scenarios it makes sense to just try harder, especially in new learning. If you’re just beginning, persevere. “Try harder” and “persevere” might be synonymous to some degree, so there’s some cases where it sort of makes sense as advice, but with maybe a few caveats, because it’s not always “Just try harder.” Sometimes it makes sense, when you’re trying to learn or problem-solve, to sort of just take a step back.

It’s that whole aspect of just allowing your mind to make connections in the subconscious (which we’ll talk about) and stuff like that. Your thoughts sort of linger out there, you have knowledge embedded in your brain that you’re just not aware of; if you allow it to make those connections, somehow it does. It’s a pretty smart organ.

Right. I think there’s so many ways in which it seems antithetical. Like, this is not what should happen, right? Like, if I wanna go North, I should go South - like, uh-uh… That’s totally not the way things work. And yet, part of what you’re getting at, Adam, is – you know, the other thing that coincides with stress is this sort of emotional reactivity. So if I’m stressed, it sets off this whole cascading events within my body and my brain, and then I’m more emotional.

Think of the way in which we’ve talked about before, how with even memory and retrieval, and I’m trying to access other data points that would help me solve the problem… And yet I have this cog called “my feelings”, and then we could get into the constraints around my own internal narrative, like “What’s wrong with you? I can’t believe you can’t solve this simple problem. What’s wrong with you?! Get it together!” That whole negative inner critic that comes out to play… And none of that is going to work well, to help you solve it any better.

Well, if you think about environment playing a role in perspective… You can’t have a different perspective if you’re in the same place.

[00:07:54.04] So to get a different perspective, a different vantage point of a problem, of a scenario, whatever it might be, you have to sort of move and maneuver, and the environment plays a key role in that, too. It’s like, they’re all systems, so sometimes just getting away kicks in a new system; maybe a new thought process, or a memory, or just anything, something different changes. You have a new view.

Yes. It’s interesting, whenever we’re trying to exercise problem-solving, we’re trying to relate or sort of figure out a way to make something fit within the constraints of previous knowledge. So I’m going “If this is what I already know, I’m gonna try to conjure that up and make it fit.” And yet “What if…” then, which is super-common, because problems could be novel… I’ve never done them before, but yet I’m trying to use old data to resolve it. So this is where it comes into this process of looking at unconscious versus conscious awareness.

If we’re talking about this, so that our listeners understand what we’re referring to - consciousness means “with awareness.” I’m whole-heartedly aware of what I’m doing. Like “I’m aware that I am riding a bike” or “I’m aware that I’m sitting in front of my computer.” That contrasted with unconscious, or sometimes people will say subconscious, but what that really simply means is without or outside of awareness.

So breathing might be a good example of that.

Is that a good example, or no?

Well, it gets a little tricky when you’re talking about physiological processes… But unconscious is – because that is automated; it’s just automatic.

My body is gonna try to breathe.

Right. I’m not using mental energy in order to make my body breathe.

What about storing memories? I’m not actually trying to store them, my brain does it; is that unconscious?

Well, I love these conversations… [laughs] It’s not that simple. There’s the process with memory consolidation, so I have to have something occur, and then I have to encode it… Which sometimes that doesn’t even happen. So yes, awareness would play a role, because if I’m not aware or don’t have attention to, I can’t encode anything, because it’s benign. It was not noteworthy, it didn’t catch my attention in any way.

Well, there’s certain things you could do obviously to trigger the storage of memories. So you could play a role in it. But I don’t say “Hey, Adam, that was a great memory. Store that.” So in some cases, I kind of do that. I’m like “Man, I really wanna remember this moment for as long as I possibly can”, and I try to do that in the moment… And then I look back, “How often have I done that, and how many of those do I remember?” and there’s obviously a big different in terms of the doing and the remembering.

Yeah, so - a good example would be if I’m wanting to remember something, my awareness might be attuned to or around my sensory data. So I’m aware of what I can see, smell, touch, taste or hear, and I’m trying to encode that, take it in; I’m mindful of. Sort of like I watch the clouds pass in front of me. Then I can bank, because that short-term working memory puts it into long-term; then I have it to retrieve in the future.

But the challenge is the unconscious, according to – so Freud, if any of you are familiar with him; pretty profound in the field of psychology… But he said that the unconscious mind is composed of all the information stored within us that’s inaccessible to our conscious minds. So if you can think about it like an iceberg, conscious is what you see above the water, unconscious is what is below the water, that you might not have access to. So that’s one of the challenges in even psychology mindset behavior. We don’t know all of what’s beneath the iceberg. We just know that it’s there, and it can play a role in what we do see.

[00:12:23.05] And this is why people can get quite confused, too… Because there’s just so much learning involved in psychology, some debate, and in a lot of cases conflicting ideas potentially even… And just a lot of unknown, and still knowing, still learning what’s happening. As you say, with the brain it’s always a moving target. We’re still always layering on new information, we’re still learning new information, so what we know today isn’t what we know tomorrow… So that sort of changes. So anyone listening is like “Well, this is kind of hard to grok, kind of hard to follow.” Well, that’s because it’s kind of a moving target.

Right. I mean, even when we talk about the brain and how we’re electrochemical beings; there’s brain structures, then there’s neurotransmitters, there’s neurons, there’s electrical currents and chemical messengers that all exert an effect. So imagine whenever we’re having these conversations around the brain - I’m trying to put a puzzle together, except nobody told me what the picture is supposed to look like, but I need to figure it out.

So which thing came first, and how does that work, and if I’m staring at one part, I might amplify that in my perspective while I’m missing out on other relevant data that would actually help me to create the accurate picture. But this is why we study, and it’s a constant, changing evolution of ideas and curiosity that gets explored.

And the reason why we’re having this conversation and talking about this subject in particular is just because we have a lot of thinkers listening to this show… So one more aspect to problem-solving, if you’re not aware, is just sort of stepping away from the problem itself and exploring a bit… And just sort of examining the different things that happen physiologically, as you mentioned, with the brain. We’ll talk about brainwaves, we’ll talk about the different aspects of the brain that are involved in this… But it’s really to give you a new perspective on this debunking try-harder method, to say step-away method. This “step away to get past, or to get unstuck.” And new ways to get unstuck from your problems.

Yeah. Because I’m pretty sure, especially in the world of technology, problems emerge daily.

Constantly. At any given moment there’s a problem to solve, but it’s a matter of which one is the most important, which one is gonna get my team, my thing, my product, whatever I’m working on to the next milestone necessary… So it’s a lot of sorting, in terms of like importance, and essentialism. What’s essential to do today? What’s most important? And then it’s actually solving the hard problems. In some cases, it could be really hard problems, like algorithmic problems, and in some cases it’s just more of like “How do I name this thing…?” Believe it or not, naming objects in software is extremely important and very hard in some cases. The right name will make things sign, will make things work very well.

Mm-hm. And the wrong name can also help them fall flat, right?

Catastrophic, yeah. Terrible.

And part of that has to do with all of these associations. So I’m always thankful for researchers who spend the time to go dig deeper, and that help all of us put this puzzle together a little bit better. A couple of those were Corinne Canter from the Human Synergistics, and then Dr. Trisha Stratford, who’s a neuroscientist out of Sydney University of Technology. They looked at innovative thinking among business leaders to help understand more of the cognitive processes involved in problem-solving. Canter said that our unconscious mind does the bulk of our thinking. That’s crazy to me… But it processes about 11 million bits of information, compared to the conscious mind, which does about 40. 11 million bits unconscious, to 40 bits conscious.

[00:16:32.24] That’s not even like in the millions, it’s not even like in the thousands. It’s just like 40.

And then she goes on and says “The brainwave patterns between an active unconscious mind and a fragmented or stressed state of mind is also vastly different.”

So this is why it’s important to reduce stress. Not just for health reasons, but for thinking reasons. To be a better thinker. Like we’ve talked about before, to be a better thinker, like we talked about before - to be a better thinker, to have an awareness of your mental framework.

Right. And I think a lot of us can relate to this even now; even just people that I talk with, and my own experience, other friends, family - of just sort of decision-fatigue, with problem solving around how to I make decisions when I don’t know? There’s so much uncertainty in going “Okay, well if this, then that. And what about this?” and then I run up against this wall, so then I’ve gotta flip it and change it…

Very tiring.

The description alone was very tiring. I can imagine the person… I’m just saying, I can feel for whomever that might have been.

Right? So the thing is that our brain has to be in an optimal state for our parietal cortex to become active and do the problem-solving. This optimal state involves your temporal lobe, where you have all your emotions and stress that need to stay super-calm, and so there also needs to be a lot of alpha waves. These are calming and relaxing waves that are going on in the brain - I’m talking brainwaves and cognitive function - and that’s when our parietal cortex can do what it needs to do. So it’s like “Here’s my optimal conditions…”

And then I can solve the problem.

Gotcha, gotcha. Let’s break down in sort of laymen’s terms these brainwaves.

Well, I’m excited to talk about this, because we’ve talked a little bit about sleep… Basically, like I said, we’ve got these electrochemical processes going on in our brain, and so electrical activity emanating from the brain is displayed in the form of brainwaves. While there are different – we reference them in sort of hertz (not “hurts”).

Right. Capital H, small z (Hz).

Yes. While one might be in the forefront, or running front and center, it doesn’t mean the other ones aren’t there and operating as well; they’re just not leading the pack, so to speak. There’s generally four categories of these brainwaves, and these are ranging from the most activity, to the least. So we’ve got beta waves… Beta waves are when the brain is aroused and actively engaged in mental activities. These are the fastest of the four different waves.

Beta waves range from 15 to 40 cycles in a second. I think of this like “Try harder.” You are actively engaged, you’re making a speech… This is the interesting thing in doing speaking - while I’m talking and I’m trying to remember the sequence of all the things I’m going to share with an audience, I’m doing the one thing, and the rest of my brain is still remembering the form of where I was gonna go, what I was gonna say… And if I went this way or that way, and I had a hiccup, or a question, or something else, I’m still tracking. So thinking multiple cognitive demands - that’s beta waves at its finest.

[00:20:17.07] Then we’ve got alpha waves. Alpha represents non-arousal. Sort of the contrast, dare I say, to beta. These are slower, and yet higher in amplitude. These are like 8 to 12 Hz. Someone who’s done something and then sits down. Or if you’re meditating, you’re usually in this alpha state.

Or – I love this… I think of it sort of like being out in nature, and those things that sort of speak to you - it’s like, “Everything is alright with the world.” Or it could just be the right Starbucks coffee.

Right. Whatever it is to you, really.

Yeah. So going down, then I’ve got Theta waves. Theta waves are typically even greater amplitude, but slower frequency. By frequency, I’m talking like 5 to 8 cycles a second. Beta was up there at that 15 to 40, and then we had 9 to 14 for our alpha waves, and this is 5 to 8 cycles a second… So think Loop De Loop. A person who has taken time off from a task and begins to daydream is often in Theta. Driving on the freeway, and like “Oh, shoot. I got home. How did I get here?” That’d be Theta.

Yeah… Or I was following the directions and I missed my turn, because I was just so lost in the moment.

Right, yeah. This is interesting, because a lot of people who do freeway driving actually get super-good ideas during this time. When you run outside, it’s in this state where things are so automated that you literally mentally disengage from them.

Well, it’s almost like as if you let all these things that are normally stressed take a rest.

Yup, I love that. Stress, then take a rest.

It’s all sort of activated, and then they get a chance to just chill out and take a seat.

Yeah. So the other thing is that typically Theta waves is – the thoughts you think during this time are very positive. They free-flow; there isn’t this sort of censoring or guilt… It’s just “I feel good.”

And then dropping down, we’ve got Delta waves. These are the greatest amplitude and the slowest frequency. They typically center around 1.5 to 4 cycles per second. They don’t go to zero… Do you know why?

Because then you’re dead.

Oh, boy.

Don’t go to zero…

So deep, dreamless sleep would take you down to that lowest frequency. 2 to 3 cycles a second. Think of how crazy that is. Delta - 2 to 3 cycles a second, as compared to Beta, which is 15 to 40. It’s a pretty big difference.

So when we go to bed and read for a few minutes before we try to go to sleep, we’re likely in that low Beta. Then you put the book down, turn off the lights, then they go from Beta, to Alpha, to Theta, and then finally we fall into Delta.

The other thing that these researchers looked at were Gamma waves. This is sort of a newer, emerging thing that people are taking a look at. Gamma waves are the fastest of the brainwaves, and relate to this simultaneous processing of information from different brain areas. And I think this is why it’s so significant. Brainwaves pass information both fast, but quiet. So our minds literally have to be quiet in order to access this Gamma.

[00:24:03.06] Meaning, not cluttered…

…not full of stress… And I don’t mean stress like “Oh, I’m stressed out”, but more like stress in terms of like decision fatigue, cognitive load - those are all stressful things to a brain. You may not emotionally be stressed, but your brain may be stressed in terms of how much load it’s under.

Yeah. It’s interesting – researchers speculate that Gamma rhythms modulate perception and consciousness, and that a greater presence of this Gamma relates to expanded consciousness. So it’s not surprising then that this is highly active in states of universal love, higher virtue, or altruism.

So where does Gamma fit in? You didn’t mention the hertz, but the hertz seem to be higher than the others…

So it seems to be faster brainwaves.

Right, it’s 38 to 42 Hz, which is above the Beta, because that’s 12 to 38. But it’s this juxtaposition. It’s high-frequency, so it’s fast, but it’s quiet. I don’t know, I think like electric cars, that are fast…

…but quiet.

Yeah. You can’t hear them. Stealth-like.

So how do we get there then? How do we engage these Gamma waves?

Well, part of that is being able to calm down. That is the key thing. The unconscious brain is built to deal with more complex problems, but usually we don’t let it… Because I’m trying to try harder! Consciously! Snap to it, Adam! Figure it out!

So this is why when we take our foot off the accelerator and back away and create a sort of hiccup, it allows our brain to sort of defrag for a moment, go do something… Especially, I would think more process-based activities, where you’re more mindful, you’re engaged in it. That helps your brain go “Oh, let me shift gears” and then I find it. So it’s like, I loosen the constraints so that I can actually allow my mind to discover, as opposed to trying to make it fit.


Yeah. So this is what these researchers, Stratford and Canter showed - that there was this increase in Gamma waves right across the entire brain for each participant, with a decrease in the Beta waves. So these Gamma waves are associated with fast learning, and this sort of “A-ha! Oh my goodness, I finally see the answer. How did I miss that?!”

Right. “It was right there.”

It’s so deep for me. I can appreciate this knowledge, I can appreciate the depth of this… It’s still difficult to really understand how to be a participant, aside from the idea of an empty mind, and Gamma waves live there. This sort of calm mind. And de-stressing isn’t just the one way, or [unintelligible 00:27:16.15] or stepping away. There’s several ways to induce this opportunity.

Yeah, so it’s interesting - when I was in graduate school I actually had the opportunity to learn this type of therapeutic treatment modality called biofeedback, or neurofeedback. We mainly used it to treat people struggling with anxiety or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder… But what was fascinating - what we would do is actually hook up electrodes to different parts of people’s heads. Then they would watch a computer screen, and they had to, through the feedback of a game on a computer screen, figure out how to make the spaceship go or pull back, just as based on what was going on. So imagine a sort of live feedback loop of whether or not you’re calm or activated.

[00:28:13.04] I just think it’s super-fascinating, because there’s actually some newer treatment modalities relative to depression, wherein it really is a sort of modification of brainwaves… Because these play a role in how we go about doing our lives. So what it is is really getting feedback that you go “Oh, my goodness… When I focus on an image or go into a certain place in my mind, it’s very much a sort of learned practice, wherein this is the state where I function optimally.”

Yeah. Well, it’s instant feedback, too… Especially if you’ve got the electrodes on your brain, or on your head, and the computer screen or something showing you as you change your thoughts, this ship moves forward or backwards, because of your ability to influence these Beta waves or these brainwaves, essentially… It’s sort of instant. Whereas if you don’t have that, you’re assuming, in a lot of waves… Based on how you feel, your emotions, potentially even solving the problem, if we’re specifically talking about the “Try harder” method, and getting unstuck, and sort of disconnecting to get unstuck. The only way you really know if you’ve had a solution or that this has happened is because an outcome.

Yeah, sure. But this is the fascinating thing of learning and practicing it. Dr. Stratford said it takes eight weeks on average to build a new neural pathway. So practicing it every day can build this new habit of like – imagine you’re teaching yourself a gear to go into. And you can associate it, you can go “I’m in this environment. I go in this place in my brain. This is my place of calm, where I feel like there’s more room to breathe. It’s fun, there’s positive emotions…”

Canter said even though you are not attending to that problem anymore, you’ve activated the neural network in the unconscious mind. So when I step away, even when I stop looking at it, the back-office is still working on it, and it’s reorganizing all that information that you input at the knowledge load stage, making connections between data points that are quite disparate. We wouldn’t consciously think to do it… That is the coolest thing. It’s like “Oh, you didn’t know you’ve got all this stuff back here to solve that?”

It’s practicing really going down deeper. I think of it like mindfulness/meditation, wherein even though I’m in an environment that might be provocative internally, or there’s lots of stimuli externally, that I figure out how to block those out. Having done competitive gymnastics, I think about it with competitions. There’s tons of other things going on. But it was really about being in the moment, doing what I needed to do at that time, and getting myself into a gear, and this is how I would even train the girls that I coached; sort of “Hey, this is why we train like this, and practice, and we visualize.” It’s “This is the zone in which I do my best work.”

Right. You sort of kick into “Once this thing has happened, it’s go-time”, right?

Now it’s game mindset, competition mindset, whatever is necessary to flip a switch, essentially, from everyday/normal/whatever to “Okay, now it’s time to completely focus on competing and winning and doing our best”, or whatever the mindset might need to be.

[00:32:05.11] Right. And this is why even the brainwave research is relative to athletes, and that sort of optimal function is not being so energized; calm, but very present. Again, a sort of juxtaposition. When we were talking about this, Adam, I think you had mentioned a strategy that you’ve used a lot to help you.

It’s called Pomodoro. It’s a “getting things done” thing. It’s just a way of helping you focus. But I find it similar to the whole “Do, step away. Do, step away.” Sort of like this constraint of focused work with a reward of a break, and then after a certain amount of time you get another longer break.

I’ll break it down, but I don’t know the exact technique, I don’t know the written, black-and-white version of the rules for this thing, but as I understand it, it’s essentially chunks of work. And that chunk of work is broken up into generally a 25-minute sprint or session of work, where you’re gonna laser-focus on whatever might be… And that “whatever might be” is your thing.

It’s 25 minutes, and then you get a break of some sort of sustained time - 3 minutes, 5 minutes, 7 minutes, whatever you can really prescribe for yourself… But I think the basis is 5 minutes. So you can do a number of these (they call them) pomodoros, sessions of this focused work, and then you get a sustained break of like 10 or 15 minutes.

I look at that like I get a chance to laser-focus on some tasks, and I get to take a break. I get to reward myself with something I learned recently called movement snacks, where I get up and walk. Especially as we start to home-work more often – I’ve already done this a long time, but I didn’t really consider that this is my chance to give myself a snack. Not food snack, but other healthy snacks, like change my thought patterns, disconnect from the problem, get up and actually walk, lift a dumbbell, go hold my kid, whatever it might be to do in these moments.

So this Pomodoro effect, this Pomodoro techniques - if you just practice it at a basic level, it has some benefits. But if you layer it into these other things we’ve been learning about breaks, and things that feed your life in other ways, then you can sort of layer those in… Like, do some sit-ups in that five minutes. Do a quick exercise. And that way, rather than doing one swathe of movement in an exercise session, you can sort of exercise in many different ways, mentally and physically throughout the day, if you practice this technique.

I’m so glad you even brought that up, because I’m super-excited about talking about this relative to exercise. Don’t everybody get discouraged, it will be fun, because what the research shows is that ironically, it’s not just a physical activity that helps us be healthy and stay healthy, but actually a non-sedentary lifestyle. So the movement snacks - yes, hallelujah. I mean, I get that - I have a very sedentary job. Now that I’m working from home, even more so. I move far less.

I thought you were on an elliptical the whole time. That’d be cool.

No, but they have them. They have bikes that have space for laptop, to be able to work simultaneously… I think that might create a very interesting effect with patients, if I were riding on a bike.


“I’m listening, don’t worry. I’m just really going for this last mile here…” [laughter] I couldn’t imagine that. That’d be kind of fun.

Yeah, but always finding a way to layer in some sort of motion is key.

[00:35:49.00] Yeah. So that brings me to talk about our emotions… Because if calm is the ideal state, then I have to be aware if my feelings are running interference with what I’m trying to do. So am I fearful, am I stressed? Because that is definitely not going to help me in doing creative thinking, active problem-solving. So this could look like work expectations, it could be even self-expectations about performance, or constraints around time… Like “Hey, you’ve gotta get this project done, and it needs to be done yesterday.” These are going to impact how you perform, because they activate that fear-response.

I don’t know though… There’s some people though - and I can even look back at my life - are you advocating for these constraints, or against them?

Against them… In this case, when I’m talking about emotions as interference. I’m not talking other constraints, like setting up parameters to work within. I’m talking about being emotionally activated.

Right. I look back at your example of when you were in grad school - staying up late, waking up early… You had a time box. [unintelligible 00:37:04.15] if the problem wasn’t solved, you had to solve it in a specific time, so that was your constraint. For me, I thrive – not always, but there are moments where I really thrive with constraints; with these sort of “Gotta get it done. 11th hour” kind of thing.

Well, so my question to you though would be then if you aren’t actually in a different state during those moments than what you think you are?


Because you’re like “I’m in the zone.”

Oh, yeah.

“This is where I need to be, and how I need to get that thing done.”

And somehow magically, in most cases, I do or they do or we do, if that’s the scenario… And that’s the perplexing thing. It’s like, could you have done it without that constraint otherwise? Did you have to wait till the bitter end?

I think about it like times where certain tasks are just aversive, and I’m like “Ugh, I just don’t wanna do them.”

We put it off.

Right? So now I’m under that stressful constraint… But then it takes me no time. And I’m like “Why did I do that? Why did I make it harder than it needed to be, because I created some aversion around it…”, when if I just got in that gear…

[00:38:25.21] Right. Well, that’s the whole idea of thriving under pressure. A literal example is the way diamonds are formed with pressure. And that’s a whole different scenario, but that’s an example often used when it comes to like “Okay, just add pressure” and this beautiful thing happens. Take a piece of coal, add an immense amount of pressure, and a diamond gets created. That’s a super-basic version of creating diamonds.

[laughs] Thank you.

There you go.

Well, I don’t want to lose this with our audience, in terms of differentiating fear… Because not all stress is bad stress. Exercise is still – it’s voluntary stress. I’m choosing to put myself under pressure. That is different than fear stress. So maybe a caveat that I use is talking about it like threat. There is some perceived threat; either sub-standard performance, losing my job… I think this contributes to a number of people and challenges that they feel at the present time, right? People have trouble concentrating, problem-solving, because there’s so much uncertainty.

It was actually Srini Pillay, a Harvard psychologist and founder of NeuroBusiness Group, that said “Uncertainty can activate the fear center of the brain, thereby disrupting the thinking processes critical to successful innovation.” So my brain can’t work as a whole. Imagine that I sort of vacuum-sealed off certain areas of my brain, so it can’t work as a comprehensive whole… Therefore, I’m going to have other constraints that won’t allow me to come up with novel solutions.

One thing that I think is important for our listeners to take away is step back and step away to get unstuck… But really using this sort of “not yet” in terms of problem-solving. This allows you to go “I have the knowledge that I’m going to be able to solve this problem, and I can stick with it, but I have to be able to remove myself or disengage from it in order to reallocate my energy elsewhere”, which then allows space for my unconscious creativity to emerge. That’s really at the heart of innovation and creativity, and feeling like you gave your all, and can feel amazing about the work that you put out.


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